Lessons for social work practice from people’s stories of poverty

A recent report into poverty gives the lie to the stereotypes of 'scroungers' and 'skivers' and provides valuable learning for social workers, says Karen Postle

By Dr Karen Postle

Following the general election we face cuts of £12bn in welfare spending. A report* published recently indicates how cuts will affect those who can least afford them. The distressing stories reported provide lessons for social work practice.

Bob Holman, long-term community worker and activist for equality, instigated the report. He challenged eight women – I was one of them – to undertake a similar task to eight women of the Hygiene Committee of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare who in 1943 published a report into the lives of families whose children were evacuated from cities to rural areas during the second world war. There had been an outcry that children were badly cared for and that parents were feckless but these women found and told, through their influential report, Our Towns: A close up, a very different story; one of poverty, deprivation and yet aspiration.

Countering stereotypes

We eight women, later nine, collected stories from people experiencing poverty. We did not try to replicate existing, excellent research. Instead we wanted people’s stories to complement and illuminate statistical data, thereby countering stereotypes of ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’.

Social workers in all sectors meet the people whose stories we heard daily:

Marcus and Louise, subject to the ‘bedroom tax’, were distressed that they could not afford their children’s Christmas presents. Marcus had always worked until forced to stop by worsening mental illness. Constant anxiety about lack of money was making his mental health much worse

Richard, 14, has autism. His dad has long-term health problems and a learning disability, recently lost his job and claimed jobseeker’s allowance. Benefit delays meant Richard’s parents used his disability living allowance for rent and fuel bills because they struggled to support Richard and his two younger siblings. Children’s services were concerned this constituted ‘financial abuse’ but the parents were just trying to keep a roof over the children’s heads. Richard’s mum has poor mental health and her anxiety worsened because she was terrified Richard would be taken into care

Maria, 45, has chronic ill health but was deemed ‘fit to work’ and her benefits were reduced by £50 per week. Her health and well-being swiftly deteriorated. Helped by friends and the local citizens advice bureau she appealed but it took two hearings in which, she said, ‘they made me feel like a criminal’, before the Department for Work and Pensions awarded her £3,000 arrears

Laura, a care worker for 20 years, now on a zero hours contract, told us: “The other Sunday I worked for six hours but only got paid for three’. She is effectively paid under the minimum wage. She and her husband work but struggle to make ends meet

People’s stories tell of draconian and unfair benefit sanctions, low pay, the ‘bedroom tax’ and mounting debts worsened by lenders’ sharp practices all contributing to stress and anxiety for people whose lives are already blighted by poor health, disability, domestic violence or substance misuse.

Lessons for practice

What lessons for practice can be drawn from the report? Mindful that cuts are also impacting on services and staff, I have listed just six:

  1. Look for and address structural inequalities which cause or contribute to people’s situations. Psychological theories, like attachment, are vital but do not tell people’s whole story and, inappropriately applied, can lead to ‘blaming the victim.’
  2. Work in preventative ways, rather than solely concentrating on crisis intervention; for example, by working with and within communities and liaising with community groups working with people in poverty.
  3. Act as advocates for people encountering injustices, for example, with benefits.
  4. Ensure people are involved in decisions and in service developments affecting them.
  5. Challenge and, wherever possible, avoid using care agencies like Laura’s with poor employment practices.
  6. Challenge working practices, at a micro level, and political changes, at a macro level.

I urge social workers to read the report and to consider how their working practices/agencies’ policies may worsen or improve the lives of people in poverty. It’s time for practitioners to take a stand. As the report asks, ‘is this the society we want to be?’.

The report, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015, was written by Tricia Zipfel, Jo Tunnard, Josephine Feeney, Audrey Flannagan, Loretta Gaffney, Karen Postle, Frances O’Grady, Sally Young and Fran Bennett.  Read the report now.

Karen Postle is a registered social worker and practice educator.

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